Washington's Hands Are Tied in Venezuela

Protests in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 2014. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/María Alejandra Mora

But the United States still has partners who can help lead the way out of crisis.

Last week, at least twenty-nine Venezuelans died during countrywide protests, demanding elections and the end of the incompetent and corrupt government led by President Nicolás Maduro. In the United States and in the region, this slowly unfolding catastrophe has led observers to call repeatedly for the United States to do something to resolve the crisis, echoed by lamentations over the loss of U.S. influence in the region. It is impossible to predict when the Maduro regime will end, or how finally it will be pushed or pulled out of Caracas. But the Venezuelan crisis has already revealed a great deal about international relations in the Americas.

Who Has Any Influence?

First, at this point the United States has little or no influence over the decisions of the senior leaders and individual playmakers in Venezuela’s government or its military (which are the same thing), or over those of the opposition. The United States has applied the usual low-cost tools of diplomacy and pressure (economic sanctions, sanctions and drug-trafficking indictments targeted at key regime leaders), to little or no effect. Hugo Chavez neutralized U.S. influence when he expelled virtually all U.S. diplomats, drug chasers, military liaisons and development workers—as well as spies, most likely—and privatized companies and industries previously controlled by or tied to U.S. corporations.

The only obvious remaining source of U.S. influence would be to cut off all U.S. purchases of (what remains of) Venezuela’s oil exports. This would cut whatever legs are left from under the economy. However, similar to the embargo against Cuba, the costs would fall heavily across all of Venezuelan society, not only the government, and the impact would be far from certain. For decades, harsh sanctions against autocratic regimes in Cuba and North Korea have served mostly to validate those government’s claims of U.S. “economic warfare” and to rally nationalist support. Also, this would affect several refineries and other facilities in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere, built specially to process heavy Venezuelan crude. Global oil prices would be likely to rise, helping the Maduro regime. In short, there are several reasons why this course of action has not already been pursued. So again, as of today the United States seems to have few, if any, unilateral points of leverage over the Maduro regime.

But before we lament U.S. weakness, it is important to point out two facts. First, U.S. policies over the last decade have contributed to Washington’s lack of access in Caracas and influence in the country. By supporting the 2002 coup against the then-popular Hugo Chávez government, which failed miserably—maybe the United States did not have spies there, after all—the Bush administration crippled U.S. credibility in the region as a champion of legal, electoral democratic transitions. More recently, by leveling drug trafficking charges against several key members of the Maduro regime (including the vice president, the interior minister and the chief of the armed forces), the United States has complicated the shady deals necessary for corrupt and entrenched individuals to step away and allow peaceful regime change. President Maduro has surrounded himself with men who have no choice but to support him, or at least the continuation of an illegal regime, because their future without it most likely involves a prison cell.

It is also remarkable, though, that after more than a decade of the Chávez-Maduro governments’ courtship of China, Russia and Iran—not to mention their coddling of their Bolivarian allies across Latin America—that none of these purported “rivals” to U.S. influence has offered to help Maduro as a furious, desperate public takes to the streets to oust him. Despite their expanded regional presence, at least for now they remain nonplayers in the region’s political games. China continues to invest in Venezuelan oil production, but this is logical, considering that Venezuela owes it roughly $40 billion in debt, to be paid in oil. Most other foreign investors have cut their losses and pulled out. Perhaps the Chinese are realizing the implications of the fact that its main client state in the region is hopelessly mismanaged, and that when and if a future government emerges in Caracas, it may well revisit some of the strategic deals Maduro and Chávez made with their ideological partner.

So what international actors have influence? Well, the Vatican tried, and failed, for weeks to lead negotiations between the government and the opposition. The latest word is that Maduro wants to restart that charade, but the opposition is uninterested. UNASUR, the South American political initiative once championed by Brazil, Argentina and others when they were friendly with Chávez, also tried and failed. So the Venezuela situation says less about U.S. influence than it does about how successful the Venezuelan regime has been at insulating itself from any and all external pressures.

This is not surprising, considering that the Chávez and Maduro governments have been steered by Cuban advisors. This suggests that, as in the Colombia-FARC peace negotiations, Havana will play a significant role in whatever successful crisis-resolution dialogue and agreement emerges. As usual, the cagey Cubans punch way above their weight in regional international affairs.

Can Venezuela’s Neighbors Do Anything?